On the Altering of Hymns

Mark Gorman

I recently attended a Sunday morning worship service at a non-United Methodist congregation. To my surprise, the opening hymn was Charles Wesley’s “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” As we began to sing, however, I quickly recognized differences in the hymn text from the United Methodist version. The most obvious difference was in the stanza that begins “Jesus the name that charms our fears,” which had become “The name of Jesus charms our fears / and bids our sorrows cease, / sings music in the sinner’s ears, brings life and health and peace.” A poetic disaster, to be sure.

This was hardly the first time Wesley’s hymns have been altered. I was a music director for eight years in a denomination that in two consecutive hymnals has insisted on substituting “He breaks the power of canceled sin” with “Christ breaks the power of reigning sin,” which makes for good Reformed doctrine but is alien to Wesley’s theological intent. But changes to Wesley’s hymns go much further back than that. From George Whitfield’s improvement on “Hark! how all the welkin rings” to John Wesley’s frequent editorial changes in the publications that helped fund the early Methodist movement, Charles’s hymns have been subject to others’ tastes, scruples, and caprices from the very beginning. Knowing this history can keep us from getting too bent out of shape over more recent revisions.

Still, there ought to be some accountability for certain changes. The change in poetry from “Jesus the name…” to “The name of Jesus…” strikes me as gratuitous. I’m sure it was introduced to overcome a supposed difficulty modern singers might have with 18th-century verse, but in this particular case much is sacrificed for little gain. The original is not particularly obscure, and the newer version is not especially clear.

The change from “canceled sin” to “reigning sin” is more egregious still and, frankly, misrepresents Wesley. The hymnals where that change can be found do note that the text has been altered, but they do not say how, making it easy for the average congregation using those hymnals to believe it is singing something by Wesley that is the nearly the opposite of what Wesley intended.

Perhaps the recent concerns about cultural appropriation can be of service with respect to Wesley’s hymns. In our contemporary context accusations of cultural appropriation follow incidents in which a person or group takes items or symbols from a different culture and uses them:

(1) in a way that promotes the taker to the disadvantage of the source, and/or
(2) in a way that is disrespectful to or not in keeping with how the source culture uses them, and/or
(3) in a way that promotes or reinforces stereotypes of the source culture.

In nearly all cases cultural appropriation occurs when the takers have a degree of power or access to success that most people from the source culture typically lack.

This last point is pertinent to Wesley and his hymns. Those of us alive today have a distinct advantage over those who belong to the great cloud of witnesses: We can continue speaking. Charles Wesley can no longer write a letter contesting proposed changes to his hymns or debate with a potential editor. The power imbalance normally involved in acts of cultural appropriation is very much in play in the adoption or adaptation of historic texts.

Taking this power imbalance as a starting point, we can imagine a spectrum of possible changes to Wesley’s hymns, with harmless or indifferent changes on one end and, on the far opposite end, changes that might, in other contexts, provoke accusations of cultural appropriation. Innocuous changes might include modernizing spelling and punctuation, which has no impact on a hymn’s meaning or poetry. Omitting entire stanzas would, in most cases, also be at this end of the spectrum. Slightly further along might be single-word substitutions that do not substantially alter meaning or poetry. In the middle of the spectrum would be amalgamating cherry-picked stanzas to create something new (such as The United Methodist Hymnal 388 “O Come and Dwell in Me,” which combines three of Wesley’s 1762 Scripture Hymns).

Much further along the spectrum toward something like cultural appropriation would be changes that substantially alter poetry or meaning, although I would differentiate between disclosed and undisclosed alterations. And at the far end of the line would be changes that keep Wesley’s name but willfully substitute the ideas, words, or preferences of another person or group.

Something like this spectrum is necessary, I think, to preserve a measure of integrity in how we use the texts of Charles Wesley (and many others, for that matter). We do not need to be purists or originalists, but we ought to demonstrate respect for who created them—and we ought to mean something, without equivocation, when we say we’re singing a hymn Wesley wrote.

Posted Jul 18, 2022

Comments are closed.